Marry an American

The interface election

So the election’s over, and President Bush is confidently announcing that he’s won a strong mandate — as he put it in his speech yesterday: “I earned capital in the campaign, political capital. And now I intend to spend it.” Meanwhile, the Democrats are morosely pondering the reasons they lost not only the electoral vote but the popular one too, to say nothing of various senate and house seats. And the predictable punditry has begun about “middle America”, “liberal elites,” and the enormous cultural divide in this country.

The thing is, the red/blue split is obviously very true in sense — which is the electoral college. With its winner-take-all system, a state either goes Republican or goes Democrat, red or blue, with no phase transition in between. But it’s equally true that this red/blue geographic divide is utterly artificial, because the vote in most states was incredibly, remarkably close. It doesn’t feel close, because the media is obsessed with continually reminding us of red-blue electoral-college map, with its lovely evocation of regional and cultural war: Lookit all that huge, sprawling red space, folks, and those blue states huddled out near the cold water! (That first map above is, by the way, from USA Today.)

But change the map and you change your view of the country. Jeff Culver recently created the amazingly cool second map you see above, which shows the actual division of votes, registered as a mix of red and blue to their proportions. As he shows, the country is in reality mostly “purple”: There nearly as many Democrats as Republicans out in the “heartland” states, just as there are nearly as many Republicans as Democrats in the “liberal” states. These voters probably all massively, heatedly, psychotically disagree with one another about who should be president. But their views are not determined solely by geography.

Call me nuts, but I think one of the biggest challenges American media and punditry has is an interface problem: They are stuck on one dramatic, manichean way of viewing the data. Imagine if TV news and newspapers regularly showed the second map every time they talked about the election. How can you look at that map and talk about some enormous, festering divide in the country? You can’t. As any scientist or graphic artist or video-game player knows, the tools you have for visualizing your situation enormously determine how you think about it.

Sure, merely looking at a purple map wouldn’t change the president’s mind. Like any politician fighting in the electoral college, he only ever cared about tipping enough states over. No president truly fights to win the popular vote. Still, symbols are powerful things. The red/blue map has become the most powerful way of thinking about modern America, yet also the most false.

(Thanks to Boing Boing for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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